Anxiety caused by driving can have a major impact on your life. Driving anxiety—also known as driving phobia—is an extreme fear of driving itself or of being a passenger.
Some people get anxious about driving anywhere, at any time, while others find that their anxiety is caused by a specific scenario, like driving over a bridge, navigating roundabouts, or driving at night.
Young to middle-aged women are the most likely to experience driving anxiety¹. A study found that 37% of people over 65² experience driving anxiety, and approximately 10% of the same age group struggle with severe driving anxiety.
Although you manage the symptoms of mild driving anxiety on your own, it is worth seeking professional help if it affects your quality of life. For example, you stay home to avoid being in a car, or you find it impacts your work or relationships or causes you distress or embarrassment.
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Driving anxiety can lead to avoidance behaviors, like refusing to drive at certain times or refusing to drive at all. Avoidance can make your anxiety stronger as it strengthens the belief that driving is dangerous and deprives you of the opportunity to challenge this belief.
Here are some of the symptoms of driving anxiety.
Increased sweating, often noticeable on your palms and back
Hyperventilation (rapid breathing)
Feeling lightheaded or faint
It is important to find a treatment that works for you to address your driving anxiety, as it often does not go away on its own.
Driving anxiety may be caused by traumatic events¹ such as a motor vehicular accident or assault while driving. Sometimes, witnessing other people experiencing these events can also cause driving anxiety.
Research shows that 20% of accident survivors¹ have some kind of stress reaction after the accident, and 20% of those who do have a stress reaction develop a phobia of driving.
Previous panic or anxiety attack while driving
Some people may experience a panic attack or anxiety while driving. They associate the symptoms with the situation of being in a car.
As this is a highly unpleasant experience, you may end up going to great lengths to avoid another panic attack in the future. This can lead to the development of driving anxiety.
Some people experience driving anxiety as a component of another anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
The biological cause behind driving anxiety is the fight-or-flight response. When you think about something that makes you anxious, like driving, the fear center in your brain (the amygdala) becomes hyperactive and signals to your body that you are in immediate physical danger, even though you are not.
The amygdala sends signals all over your body to induce the fight-or-flight response. This response is mediated by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).
One of the functions of this system is to promote the release of epinephrine from the adrenal glands. Epinephrine readies your body to either fight or run away from danger, and it causes a number of the symptoms you experience with driving anxiety.
Although you can manage symptoms of driving anxiety, it often does not go away on its own. Overcoming it usually requires help from a psychologist or other mental health specialist.
Common treatments for driving anxiety include cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and virtual reality treatment.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on identifying thought patterns and behaviors that influence your emotions. It involves new ways to cope in situations that cause you anxiety and gaining confidence in your ability to drive.
This treatment involves structured sessions with a trained specialist. During sessions, you will work with the therapist to identify unhelpful automatic thoughts, implement behavior experiments, and learn new coping mechanisms.
However, it is also just as important to practice what you have learned at home, which is why you may be given homework.
Exposure therapy can fall under cognitive behavioral therapy, as it aims to help you change your behavioral patterns. It involves slowly exposing yourself to the event that makes you anxious—like driving a car or being a passenger in a vehicle.
Exposure therapy can be done at your pace, depending on your doctor’s assessment. Graded exposure therapy is done slowly, starting with less stressful activities, like just sitting in a car, and gradually getting harder until you overcome your driving anxiety.
This therapy is done slowly to ensure that changes last and avoid causing you more stress.
When you experience anxiety around a certain event like driving, it is often because your brain has a negative memory or belief of this event. Exposure therapy aims to slowly change this negative image to a positive one, thereby reducing and eventually eliminating the anxiety.
Virtual reality treatment
Research has shown that treatment with virtual reality technology can reduce anxiety¹ around driving. In this therapy, you would play a video game that includes driving scenarios using virtual reality technology.
This treatment may be used early in exposure therapy to get you comfortable being in the driving environment.
Whether you are getting professional help with your driving anxiety or not, it is important to know some relaxation techniques and other handy tips to ensure you can continue your daily routine as much as possible.
Figure out the cause of your fear
Often, this is something that you will do as part of your treatment with a professional. However, it may be quite helpful if you have not done this already.
Some causes of driving anxiety include a crash that you were involved in or being stuck in the wrong lane at a busy roundabout. Once you have worked out the cause of your driving anxiety, you can brainstorm ways to get over it.
For example, let’s say your anxiety is caused by navigating roundabouts. One step you can take toward getting over this problem is to try driving around a roundabout that you are very familiar with at a time when it is not busy.
Or, if you are not quite ready for that yet, you might find that watching videos online about how to drive around roundabouts is a good place to start. Research has shown that working out the cause of your fears³ and problem-solving them helps reduce anxiety.
Plan your route
If you are driving to a new place and that causes anxiety, plan your trip in advance. Do some research on the place you are going. Find out what kind of area it is. Is it a busy city, or is it more rural? Are you going to be there during the rush hour?
Find out what the parking is like. Look up the address online and find the best route. This way, you will know many of the obstacles you may encounter that may cause anxiety for you. You can then start to plan how to get past them.
Be careful not to overthink when doing this; otherwise, you might talk yourself out of going. It’s best to give yourself a time limit to make this plan and follow up with a relaxation technique to stop yourself from stressing too much.
Allow extra time
Allow an extra 10 to 15 minutes when you drive somewhere that you think may cause anxiety. This allows some freedom to pull over and calm down when you need to.
Having the extra time removes the added stress you may feel about being late if you need to pull over, and it also reduces the risk of you driving with heightened anxiety.
Take a support person
Ask a friend or family member to come with you when you have to drive somewhere. This person could provide support by reminding you that you are doing well or prompting you with what to do if your anxiety affects your decision-making.
Stay local when you can
If driving to unknown places causes you anxiety, try driving around the town you live in and doing most of your daily tasks in the area. This will help keep your driving practice up instead of giving up on driving entirely.
It will also cause less stress than venturing out when it is not necessary.
Take the time to congratulate yourself
When you have reached your destination, take some time to sit in the car and congratulate yourself for pushing past your anxiety and making it to where you are. Turn the car off and take a few deep breaths.
Tell yourself that you did it, you made it. Giving yourself this time to be happy about overcoming your anxiety will help set this achievement in your mind, making it progressively easier each time you have to do it.
Set realistic goals for yourself
When overcoming fears and anxiety, set realistic goals for yourself. Having big long-term goals is fine, but make sure to break down this goal into smaller, more maintainable steps.
Setting a goal too large and then not reaching it will only make you feel upset and your driving anxiety harder to overcome. You are much better off setting smaller, more realistic goals to make slow and steady progress.
Deep breathing techniques
These deep breathing techniques can be used whenever you feel anxious. You could try them when you’re getting anxious thinking about driving, right before you get in the car, during the drive if you need to pull over or are at a stoplight, or even when the drive is over to help you calm yourself.
The first and simplest breathing technique is to simply take slow and deep breaths that fill your diaphragm.
Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest
Take a slow breath in
Feel the breath fill your diaphragm—you should feel your stomach push out—then your chest.
Take a slow breath out, releasing the air from your diaphragm and chest
Repeat these steps for a few minutes.
Another technique you can use is called the 4-7-8 technique. This is similar to the simple breathing technique above, except this one is more controlled.
Breathe in for four seconds, feeling the air fill your diaphragm
Hold your breath for seven seconds
Breathe out for eight seconds
Repeat these steps for a few minutes.
Research has shown that aromatherapy reduces anxiety⁴. Some essential oils are found to have anti-anxiety properties, including the following:
Try a facial or room spray that contains one of these essential oils. Spray some on your face or in your car to create a calm environment for driving.
Avoid caffeine before driving
Caffeine is anxiogenic⁵, which means it can cause or be involved in causing anxiety. Avoid drinking coffee or any caffeinated beverage before driving to help reduce your anxiety.
Yoga⁶ and meditation⁷ are great for anxiety relief. You may benefit from these either before or after you drive. You can meditate from your car if you feel you need to relax when you have finished driving.
There are plenty of online yoga and meditation tutorials for beginners available online.
Driving anxiety can be caused by road-related trauma, witnessing road-related trauma, or general anxiety. Regardless of the cause, it can result in significant stress and an interruption of your daily routine.
It is best to seek professional help to overcome driving anxiety. Some of the treatments professionals may use are outlined in this article. There are also other techniques you can use to help relieve your driving anxiety, in addition to getting help from a mental health specialist.
Clinical aromatherapy (2020)